From Navy missile tech to iSchool: Syracuse University helps veterans get degrees

By JULIE MCMAHON | Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. | Published: May 12, 2017

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Ten years ago, the most likely place to find Erik Newcome was hundreds of feet under the Pacific Ocean in a submarine off the coast of Seattle.

On Sunday the Baldwinsville dad will graduate magna cum laude from Syracuse University. He will be among 6,500 students graduating during a 9:30 a.m. ceremony in the Carrier Dome.

Newcome, 34, transitioned from six years as a Navy missile technician to pursuing a bachelor's degree from SU's School of Information Studies.

The Illinois native is among a growing number of military veterans to graduate from SU.

The population of student-veterans and family members of veterans on campus has grown 94 percent in the last year, a spokeswoman for SU's part-time school University College said. SU enrolled 53 vets in 2009. That number is up to 1,041 this past semester.

About a quarter of those students attend SU part-time, like Newcome has.

He began taking a class per semester in 2011, two years after he left his post the U.S.S. Pennsylvania's Gold Crew.

Newcome served eight patrols for about three months apiece, underwater. His role was operating and maintaining nuclear weapons on the 460-foot-long boat.

Though the submarine Newcome served on was four stories tall, he grew close with his fellow sailors, and the length of his tours were considered a "family plan," the Navy lifestyle was demanding.

In 2009, he and his wife Abby decided they were ready to move on to the next stage of their lives and prepare to start a family.

Newcome landed a job maintaining homeland security x-ray equipment with Science Applications International Corporation. The couple moved to Syracuse. (Newcome is now employed by the spin-off company Leidos.)

At 28 years old, Newcome enrolled at SU.

He hopes a bachelor's degree will open doors to advance his career. He'd like to pursue a business or law degree in the future.

Syracuse was a good place to start, Newcome said, because the iSchool offers classes online and during evenings and summers -- something he'd like to see even more of for other part-time students and veterans with families. Newcome was able to use educational benefits through the Veterans Administration to attend college at no cost.

In 2013, the couple had their first daughter Emerson and bought their first house in Baldwinsville. (Their youngest, Alita, is 8 months old.)

That year, Newcome also increased his course load to two classes a semester as he continued to work full-time.

With a jam-packed schedule, he still managed to graduate with honors.

"When you only take one or two classes per semester you can really focus," he said.

Newcome found that for him, taking the less traditional route and attending college later in life meant he was more in control of his education.

He took a few semesters of college out of high school, before opting to enlist.

He recalled doing well in the classes that interested him, but not in those that didn't.

"You're not as invested at that point," he said, "whereas now as an adult, I am very invested. I know there's a real cost to not doing well in your formal education."

Newcome said SU's growing expertise with working with veterans also helped propel him toward the commencement stage.

Through University College, veterans have access to life coaches, a resource center and peer orientation.

The University as a whole is investing in veterans through its Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

The new National Veterans Resource Complex currently under construction on the corner of Waverly and South Crouse avenues will serve as a physical manifestation of the college's commitment to veterans.

For Newcome, staff members who knew how to file paperwork with the VA and how to navigate credit hours were invaluable.

University College advisor Emaline Butler helped him with setting his schedule and found ways to get him credit for his military experience.

"She really did believe my time in the service was valuable," he said. "I worked on submarine launch nuclear weapons -- how does that translate into a civilian type of education? They aren't teaching a nuclear weapons class in the engineering department, but she really helped me nail down how this translates to electrical engineering ... It was always: How do we make this work for you?"

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